This summer, I had a wonderful opportunity to participate in a Shinto seminar at North America’s primary shrine, the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, located in Granite Falls, Washington, near Seattle. Shinto is an ancient, polytheistic and pantheistic religion that has come to define the very ways of the Japanese themselves and their culture. Throughout its long history, its practices have included ceremony, shamanism, magic, divination and prayer. This particular shrine I visited is a branch of the Tsubaki O-Kami Yashiro in Mie Prefecture, one of the oldest shrines in the world, with a history of more than 2,000 years. The principle Kami of the Tsubaki shrines are Sarutahiko-no-O-Kami, an earthly Kami of guidance, protection, and positiveness, along with his wife, Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto, the Kami of the arts, entertainment, meditation, and joy. The Tsubaki Grand Shrine also enshrines Amaterasu O-Mikami (often referred to as the “Sun Goddess”, and arguably the main Kami of Shinto), as well as the Kami of the North American continent, Amerika Kokudo Kunitama-no-Kami, and the Kami of Aikido, Ama-no-Murakumo-Kukismauhara-Ryu-O.
Much like Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu, Shinto’s western presence is in its infancy, but is making strong headway. Not too long before the time our late headmaster, Tsumaki Seirin Genshin Soke, began to construct his vision of an international Tamiya Ryu, the Rev. Yukiyasu Yamamoto, the 97th Guji (high priest) of Tsubaki Jinja, began work on a similar vision for traditional Jinja (shrine) Shinto. Rev. Yamamoto believed in Shinto’s universal nature, and its ability to capture the hearts of people around the world.
In 1986, the first North American Shinto shrine, Tsubaki America Shrine was established in Stockton, California near the Bay Area. In 2001 the Matsuri Foundation donated a wonderful, energy-flowing parcel of land in Granite Falls, Washington, and the shrine was moved to its current location. Since then, the religion has spread to other American states, Canada, and Europe, and the Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Washington has hundreds of members, from around the world, alone. For men like Rev. Yamamoto and Tsumaki Seirin Genshin Soke, I am especially grateful.
At the Shrine’s weekend-long summer seminar I was able to experience first-hand the spirituality that I have been intrigued by for years. Although this was not my first visit to a Shrine (my first was Meiji-Jingu in Tokyo), this was my first intensive study of the religion, and not just a stop on the “gaijin tour bus.” As Alexanian Shihan has very correctly observed from my photographs, the fact that the shrine is located on our side of the pond bears no impact on its truly Japanese and Shinto-spirited aura. The polarity between the 17-acre shrine grounds, an almost-literal immersion in which one could swear he has stepped into Japan, and the rural American town of Granite Falls, not but a half-mile’s walk away, is absolutely surreal. In my early-morning trip for a McDonald’s breakfast before O-Misogi (River Purification), each step I took felt a hundred miles in length.
The seminar began with a casual, round table discussion with the Shrine’s Priest, Rev. Koichi Barrish. Rev. Barrish was the first American ordained as a Shinto Priest (although not the first gaijin Priest – that title belongs to a Frenchman). Since Rev. Barrish’s ordination, several more Americans and a Canadian, interestingly all women, have become Priestesses (Priests and Priestesses are viewed as equal, and perform the same duties, in Shinto).
Rev. Barrish is a very outgoing, frank guy when not in Ritual (Ritual with Kami requires a very energy-focused, closely-defined demeanor). The discussions are always very open, and he answered all the questions we might have had. The Shrine also has its own line of green tea, which we were all able to enjoy. For our first discussion, after acquainting everyone with the basics, we each shared our name, where we were from, and a little bit about ourselves. Rev. Barrish wrote down our names and our hometowns, for use in the first ceremony. After going downstairs to the main Shrine area, that first ceremony began.
This first ceremony was a kind of “introduction” to the Kami… our names and hometowns were read to Kami in “Norito” form. The words recited in all Shinto ceremony, either by a priest or a layman, are called “Norito”. Norito is, put in western terms, a kind of hybrid between prayer and magic, and is usually recited in a very archaic, specialized form of Japanese, which is so old that it is not understandable even to modern speakers of Japanese. The efficacy of Norito is based in “Koto-Dama”, or the inherent power residing in the spoken word. Shinto also recognizes Sanskrit as possessing this Koto-Dama – thus in theory, Sanskrit may be used in Shinto ceremony as well.
Throughout the weekend, we participated in many other discussions, meals, social times, and ceremonies. We were also given basic training in “Chinkon”, or Shinto Meditation. Most of the participants stayed in the kaikan for the night, a kind of inn that is often kept by shrines. Thus, the seminar was a non-intermittent, 24-hour experience. The shrine also sells many items such as books, Ema boards, CDs and DVDs, Talismans and other objects of special power. Needless to say, I had a significantly heavier suitcase after visiting!
The final ceremony performed at the seminar bears a striking resemblance to the Christian communion: A small amount of sake is ceremonially consumed by each participant, with beautiful, traditional music; this sake is spiritually shared between Kami and man, and the rite symbolizes and furthers the ultimate, beautiful goal of Shinto: the total union of Kami and mankind, and the perfection of our world.
Shortly after the seminar, I made the decision to become a member of the Shrine, and to help spread Shinto’s presence throughout the western world.
In furtherance of my dedication to supporting nature-based spiritualities, I have since helped in re-establishing Michigan State University’s student group devoted to such paths.
But even for those who may have already found their path to the Divine (whether it be Christianity or another way), I believe that for the person studying the traditional Japanese martial arts, the Shrine experience is very much worthwhile, as it helps foster the deepest possible understanding of the origin and character of the Japanese ways.